Local group finds devastation and hope in Haiti
A picture is worth a thousand words. An image is worth a million.
We’ve all done it before. And every time there is hope— mixed with a little disappointment.
You get back from your trip and rush to show your friends the pictures. You hoped to capture some of the excitement, fun, and even some of the dangers of your recent adventure. It’s hard to recreate the scenes — the place, the people and the perspective in those three-by-four frames. The view looks somewhat the same, but it loses something in the delivery. Nothing can quite express the reality the way you remember it. The colors seem not as bright. The focus not as clear.
Ten men recently embarked on a mission trip to Haiti to help rebuild a school, a medical clinic, a church…maybe a few lives. We assumed it would be the lives of the people we went to help. In the team picture we took on the day First Baptist Church commissioned us, if you look close enough, you can detect a sense of excitement and anxiety, confidence and uneasiness.
Most of us had never been to that part of the world before — before the earthquake, before the hurricanes, before the political unrest. Jim Brown, Tom Filkins and Jim Harris were veterans of the country and the work. Perhaps their anxiety was more for the rest of us rather than the reconstruction work before us. They were the ones in the picture with the somewhat less anxious look.
Flying over the country, we were all impressed with the contrasts between the deep greens of the mountains, the various shades of blue of the surrounding ocean and the white cliffs that had been stripped of forestation by man or nature. From a distance, the pictures in our mind were of a deceptively serene Caribbean island, a troubled tropical paradise.
We were hurried through the Toussaint Louverture International Airport in Port au Prince; shuffled through the customs lines with an ease that surprised even the most seasoned of our team. The baggage carriers almost fought to carry our bags, the closest thing to a riot we experienced during the eight days of our journey. Then came the ride from the capital city to Leogane on Route Nationale #2.
We all handle anxiety differently. Chuck Quinn, (the younger) and Rick Colclough seemed to talk to everyone — both in and out of the truck as we traveled down this famous boulevard. Jim Brown and Tom reminisced about past mission work in Haiti as they looked forward to see the changes that had taken place since the times they had been to the orphanage before. Tony Cole, Chuck Quinn (the elder) and Wilson Graham traded observations about the sights, sounds, and smells as we bumped our way passed the crowded markets, beside the tiny storefront shops and by the umbrellas that dotted the side streets with vendors selling everything from pots and pans to pharmaceuticals. But I noticed that Paul Weber and I barely spoke. Paul is quiet by nature and I am one that makes his living by words but this was that uneasy quiet we shared. It was the sound of the silence when words are too fragile to hold the experience. It was a picture whose frame was too small.
We passed through scene after scene of dwellings patched together with tarps and timber, cinder and concrete, tents and tin. Stones and cement bordered the sidewalks where the homeowners and shopkeepers piled what was still left of their buildings. Rebar stretched like bony fingers to the sky where second stories used to stand.
What soon became apparent was the irony as we passed by the religious displays in this land where God seemed, at first thought, to have punished or at least abandoned. The little trucks and buses called “tap-taps” were emblazoned with phrases like “Merci, Jesus” and biblical references like “2 Cor 5:17”, “Ps 39” and “1Cor 13”. The theme was replicated on everything, from the “Gloria Dieu” hair salon, to the “Pere Eternal” and “Fils de Dieu” Lotto joints. One could not help wondering if the signs were praise or a plea.
Photos could not give a sense of the constant smell of the ever-burning garbage and diesel fuel. As we passed by the markets of Carrefour of Grassier we were teased by the smell of the grilled chicken seasoned with lime and garlic from the makeshift brasseries at the same time being tormented by the putrid scent of rotting mangos and, pineapples, potatoes, cabbage and leeks of previous weeks.
The temptation was to hold your arm up to your eyes to ‘crop’ the devastation and poverty from the picture and focus on the clear blue skies and those ever present mountains. But such a shot begs for a broader perspective and a wider lens. It became clear that it had only been 16 months since the devastating earthquake. There had also been, as our host Pastor Kelly Fleury was quick to tell us, great strides made in rebuilding.
We can show photos of our little team becoming a part of this rebuilding. Tom, our construction supervisor, quickly found Wilson, Paul, Rick and “Chuckie” had both interest and some talent in completing some work on a huge metal schoolhouse near the Girls Orphanage. At one time there were over 600 children flocking there to learn mathematics, history and English. One cannot go to the local Lowe’s for appropriate supplies, so the team had to rethink and devise Plan B, C, D and sometimes Plans E and F. Their creativity was only surpassed by their passion for the work and their sense of camaraderie.
There are pictures of Tom, Chuck, Tony, Jim and me as we did carpentry and masonry work on two medical clinics, a small church and a neighboring schoolhouse. We worked alongside and taught several of the Haitian men how to lay blocks for a more steady foundation, built door frames and did other small and great tasks. Tony and Jim also worked on vehicles; the foundation’s van and a larger truck broke down toward the latter part of the project week.
Sadly, both were beyond repair. Transportation then became, and still is, their immediate need.
There is even a shot or two of Jim Harris, my co-leader and the team’s evangelist as he led worship in small churches at the orphanage in Leogane, in a church in Carrefour that blossomed to several hundred people and a larger service with over 3,000 in attendance that was broadcast over radio to the whole country. There are pictures of the opportunities I had to network with church groups from Beckley, West Virginia and Jacksonville , FL., student teams from Alfred University in New York, and Florida State and volunteer medical teaching faculties from the U.S. and Israel.
Photographs can’t begin to give one a sense of the taste of Haiti. I had the opportunity of cooking (along with Jim B.) for the team, which took me to the open-air markets to learn a bit about Haitian cuisine and speak to the vendors in the French/Creole I had not used in years. I had the chance to see and taste fresh bananas (two kinds) and mangos (five varieties); sugar cane (black and white) and coconuts (the thin skinned ones with sweet milk and those with thicker flesh). I admit it, I was not adventuresome enough to sample the meats from the market — the beef, pork and the variety of fish. But the last night, I did have the privilege of cooking with Carline, the Boys’ Home cook, as the team enjoyed a traditional meal of grilled chicken, beans and coconut rice. A picture of simplicity and hospitality!
We did come back with hundreds of snapshots from Haiti. Many will be reminders of the places, people and projects-of a place devastated by earthquake and hurricanes, of a people devitalized by hunger and hardship, of churches crumbling and homes in heaps across the country. Those pictures were easy to take. But some pictures were harder to take, much more difficult to get developed. Maybe the shutter speed was too slow, maybe the lens was not correct.
Take the photo of a new school house being built that can never capture the pride in the voice of the woman who said, through tears, to a team member, “This has been our dream.” Or the shot of a rebuilt medical clinic that cannot contain images of the healing of hundreds of the children, the injured and the elderly who will come from the tiny makeshift villages of the poorest country in the Western World. Or the picture of a newly reinforced church building that can never really convey the hope of the struggling but growing congregation as they reach beyond their circumstances to a waiting Savior.
But the one picture that will stay with me will be the image of a worship service in an alleyway in downtown Carrefour on a hot Sunday morning. We “blanches”(whites) were given seats of honor in the front behind big box fans as the Haitians sat crammed on small wooden benches in the sweltering 100-plus degree heat. The service was at the same time strange (in their native language) and familiar (we could pick out some familiar choruses). And at the end, a small choir of young women sang to us and for us in our native language, “I Will Always Be a Child of God.”
They live in rubble, we complain of the heat from our cars to our air conditioned offices. They are hungry; we grumble of the inconvenience of the local supermarket running out of our brand of coffee. Many of them are orphaned, while we cannot make a call to a family member who lives in a neighboring town.
And there they were, singing about a Father who loved them, some of them orphaned. And a God who provides for them, most of them hungry. And a Savior who cares for them, many of them sold into slavery by others. And I, for a moment, pity them, because they don’t seem to get the picture of their poor circumstances.
Then I remember a somewhat faded photograph of a Kingdom that I had almost forgotten in my small mind in my even smaller heart. A picture that was bent and folded by years of cynicism afforded by relative ease and comfort. And I wondered whose poverty was greater.
Rod Kerr is minister of education at First Baptist in Salisbury. He is collecting funds to buy a bus for the Fleury Foundation Orphanage in Leogane, Haiti. You can call 704-633-0431 for information about donating.